Nestor Mata: After Falling from Heaven, a Passionate Life of Music, Journalism, Chess, and Art

Nestor Mata gained more years after he survived a plane crash in central Philippines at 31 in 1957. Since then, he has lived life passionately - by singing classical music, appreciating art, playing chess, organizing artists' chess tournaments, writing about politics, covering dangerous events, and writing books.

''I was given a precious life when I survived the fatal crash of Douglas C-47 plane (also called) Mount Pinatubo on Mount Manung-gal in Balamban, Cebu, 55 years ago,'' recalls Mata, one of the journalists who covered President Ramon Magsaysay in Cebu on March 17, 1957. After the crash, he thought he would devote his life entirely ''to tell the truth and shame the devil,'' a journalist's mission. He has not stopped being a journalist since then, but writing for Mata, now 86, has become just one of his favorite activities.

Living dangerously (in news coverages) and indulging in many meta-artistic activities, Mata's charmed life seems to ask everyone: ''What have you been doing with your life?'' The gutsy Mata who is more than five feet tall, can shame those who squander intellect and talent with impunity. His doubts, shyness, and paralysis of expression (in the arts), he says, were shaken out of him when he survived the 1957 plane crash.

Every year, he still mounts his own annual classical concert for a private audience of selected friends and musicians, making it a ritual of enhanced feeling for the Filipino, French, German and Italian songs that seem reincarnated from his heart. He has continued the ritual with defiance when singing has turned into a chase for the elusive musical notes that still ring perfectly in his ears. Responding to that challenge, says Mata, is an art.

Up to now, he still renders one of his favorite songs, ''Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Hertz'' (''My Heart is only For You''), by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) with romantic flair, plumbed from memories and knowledge of love more than a singer's strong diaphragm.

''Have you ever heard an 86-year old man sing?'' he asks, hinting that melodic hues really strike deep with age, experience, and memories. All these are well fermented at the height of man's frailty - so, sing more. ''Music is above everything else. Music is everything. Singing energizes and renews me. It should go on,'' Mata declares.

Recalling a prodigious beginning in music, he says, ''I studied violin at six under Bonifacio Abdon, the first violin teacher of Ernesto Vallejo, Manila's renowned violin virtuoso in the 1920s. I was with the choir of St. Agnes Catholic Church in (Manila's) Intramuros when I was 15. That's why I can read notes.''

Preparing for a concert, up to now, is a back-breaking ordeal that includes ''memorizing, practicing and rehearsing,'' says he. (Filipino) kundiman or classical songs in French, German, and Italian are easy and enjoyable to memorize because of their intrinsic melodies,'' he says of his musical preference. The composers' journeys to hell are hardest to tackle with hope and sense of disbelief.

Mata's other aim in singing is to mine the ''magnetic field between the performer and the audience (because it) is like writing as a journalist (or dishing out new things for the audience)''.

Noting a rambunctious life that immediately developed on top of his music-filled childhood, Mata says, ''As a journalist, I started at 21 in 1947.''

''Journalism (a 65-year old passion) has given me photographic memory and sturdy mind,'' says Mata, whose analysis, courage, insight, and wit, through the years, are more grounded with facts than amplified with fiery illusions to save the world.

His career as a journalist runs parallel with the history of Philippine journalism. He has been writing a column for Malaya for 13 years, starting 1999. He was art and political columnist of Manila Standard for 13 years, from 1986 to 1999, when the paper was owned by Freddie Elizalde and edited by Andy del Rosario. In the same period, he was co-executive editor (with Julie Yap Daza) of (glossy magazine) Lifestyle Asia for 13 years, from 1986 to 1999.

''When Pocholo Romualdez invited me to write a column for Daily Express, three times a week at the start of the Martial Law rule of Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, I agreed to write on foreign affairs, not on politics.'' He continued writing for the Express for 14 years until the ouster of Marcos in 1986.

He was with the historic Philippines Herald for 23 years, initially as a reporter at 23 in 1949. Then he rose as presidential reporter, foreign news desk editor, and foreign correspondent until he became associate editor, when Zacarias ''Coring'' Nuguid was editor-in-chief. At the ascent of Mata's career, the paper was shut down by Marcos in 1972.

Herald was alternately owned by influential businessmen. The brainchild of then Senator Manuel Quezon, it was bank-rolled by the Elizaldes, owner of El Debate-Herald-Mabuhay-Monday (DHMM), in the 1930s. It was leased to sugar baron J. Amado Araneta who wanted to lobby for a US market, in 1938. It was taken over (after Araneta's death) by the Madrigals in the '50s, and bought by the Sorianos of San Miguel Corporation in 1961.

Mata was also news analyst of DZPH's ''Nine O'clock,'' and host of news magazine with the same title at Channel 13, then owned by Roberto Benedicto. On the side, he taught Political Science at the University of Santo Tomas.

''My mother Mamerta was also a journalist,'' he boasts when asked about his idols and mentors in journalism.

The only book he had done on the 1957 plane crash was entitled ''One Came Back,'' which he co-authored with sports writer Vicente Villafranca. Published in 1957, it talked about a ''blinding flash that awakened him (during the crash) then he became unconscious. He woke up at three in the morning, as attested by his Longines watch. He was in pain, on a cliff cradled by soft leaves, several meters away from the burning plane and scattered cadavers still on their seats. Before the plane took off from Lahug Airport at 1:17 AM, Mata was on the second seat next to the president's compartment near the cockpit. In the forest, he shouted for help; a dog howled back. Rescuers led by village captain Marcelino Nuya and his dog Serging (named after Mayor Sergio Osmena Jr. of Cebu) found Mata at eight in the morning. But they returned to their village to look for a hammock to carry him with. Twelve men took turns for 18 hours, in carrying him to a nearby hospital. It was a hot day, and the hammock, made of bamboo, rubbed on his raw wounds.

When they arrived at Cebu City's Southern Island Hospital where Dr. Jose Agustines treated Mata for shock and second and third degree burns, he dictated to a nurse the story of the crash, saying, ''President Ramon Magsaysay died.''

''When I was transferred to Veterans Memorial Health Centre in Quezon City, my friends Jose Aspiras and Claudio Teehankee poked under my blanket - and were happy that my third leg was intact,'' jokes Mata, adding, ''I was burned in the legs, arms, and belly except for the most important part, he, he!'' He had four children then; two more came after the plane crash.

He recovered in three-month's time, ahead of his doctor's prescribed period of rest. When Mata was reunited with Serging, the dog, he baptized it Avante, his ''guardian angel''

''My wife Avelina (who died of cancer in 1995) clipped 38 pages of articles about the plane crash,'' recalls Mata. A Senate investigation, following a testimony from former Philippine Constabulary Chief Gen. Manuel Cabal, concluded that the plane crash was due to ''metal fatigue''.

''Remembering what happened in 1957 always makes me sad,'' says Mata who also boasts of many brushes with death. He covered the Korean War in 1953; and the six-day war of Israel versus Egypt, Jordan, and Syria from June 5-10, 1976 which marked Israel's recapture of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. He was in Southeast Asia's troubled spots like Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand in the '70s.

His second book, ''Journey to the Red Empire'' documented a month of coverage ahead of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) in 1976, after the US lost the Vietnam War in 1975. ''Cory of 1000 days'' is a collection of his columns written during Mrs. Aquino's tumultuous rule from 1986 to 1992. Mata's another authentic book on the plane crash is much awaited.

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